7 Famous People in Mexican History

From Hernan Cortes to Frida Kahlo

The history of Mexico is full of characters, from the legendarily inept Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna to the tragic Frida Kahlo. Here are but a few of the more interesting men and women who have left their mark on the great nation of Mexico.
Portrait of Cortés at Museo del Prado.
José Salomé Pina/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) was a Spanish conquistador who conquered native populations in the Caribbean before setting his sights on the Aztec Empire. Cortés landed on the Mexican mainland in 1519 with only 600 men. They marched inland, making friends with disgruntled Aztec vassal states along the way. When they reached the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, he was able to take the city without a battle. Capturing Emperor Montezuma, Cortes held the city until his men outraged the local population so greatly that they revolted, but Cortés took the city again in 1521 and held it this time. He served as the first Governor of New Spain and died a wealthy man. More »

Miguel Hidalgo, siglo XIX, imagen tomada de: Jean Meyer, “Hidalgo”, en La antorcha encendida, México, Editorial Clío, 1996, p. 2.
Anonymous/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Father Miguel Hidalgo (1753-1811) was the last person you would have thought would kick off a revolution in Spanish colonial Mexico. A respected parish priest, Hidalgo was already in his fifties in 1810 and was a valued member of his community. Nevertheless, inside the body of the dignified priest known for his command of the complicated Catholic theology, there beats the heart of a true revolutionary. On September 16, 1810, he took to the pulpit in the town of Dolores and informed his flock that he was taking up arms against the hated Spanish…and he invited them to join him. Angry mobs turned into an irresistible army and before long, Hidalgo and his supporters were at the very gates of Mexico City. Hidalgo was captured and executed in 1811, but the revolution lived on, and today Mexicans see him as the father of their nation. More »

Santa Anna in a Mexican military uniform
Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794-1876) joined the army during Mexico's War of Independence…the Spanish army, that is. He would eventually switch sides and over the next few decades, he rose to prominence as a soldier and politician. He would eventually be President of Mexico on no fewer than eleven occasions between 1833 and 1855. Santa Anna was crooked but charismatic and the people loved him in spite of his legendary ineptitude on the field of battle. He lost Texas to rebels in 1836, lost every major engagement in which he participated during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and in between managed to lose a war to France (1839). Still, Santa Anna was a dedicated Mexican who always came when his people needed him (and sometimes when they didn't). More »

President Benito Pablo Juárez García.
Anonymous/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Benito Juarez (1806-1872) was a truly remarkable individual. A full-blooded Mexican Indian who was born into grinding poverty, he didn't even speak Spanish as his first language. He took full advantage of the opportunities he had ​and went to seminary school before going into politics. By 1858 he had declared himself President as leader of the ultimately victorious liberal faction during the Reform War of 1858-1861. He was removed as President by the French, who invaded in 1861. The French installed a European nobleman, Maximilian of Austria, as Emperor of Mexico in 1864. Juarez fought against Maximilian and eventually drove out the French in 1867. He ruled for five more years until his death in 1872. Juarez is remembered for many reforms, including curtailing church influence and modernizing Mexican society. More »

A Escobar C, digital Archive Mexico's hundred years of independece festivity, 1910; president Porfirio Díaz
Aurelio Escobar Castellanos/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Porfirio Diaz (1830-1915) became a war hero during the French invasion of 1861, helping to defeat the invaders at the famous Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. He entered politics and followed the rising star of Benito Juarez, although the two men did not get along well personally. In 1876 he grew tired of trying to reach the Presidential palace democratically: he entered Mexico City with an army and not surprisingly won the "election" he set up himself. Diaz would rule unchallenged for the next 35 years. During his rule, Mexico modernized and joined the international community, building railroads and infrastructure and developing industries and commerce. All of Mexico's wealth, however, was concentrated in the hands of a few, and life for ordinary Mexicans was never worse. As a result, the Mexican Revolution exploded in 1910. Diaz was out by 1911 and died in exile in 1915. More »

Villa as he appeared in the United States press during the Revolution.
Bain Collection/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Pancho Villa (1878-1923) was a bandit, warlord and one of the main protagonists of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) which overthrew the crooked Porfirio Diaz regime. Born Doroteo Arango in impoverished northern Mexico, Villa changed his name and joined a local bandit gang. He soon became known as a skilled horseman and a fearless thug - traits that made him leader of the pack of cutthroats he had joined. Villa had an idealistic streak, however, and when Francisco I. Madero called for revolution in 1910, Villa was the first to answer. For the next ten years, Villa fought against a succession of would-be rulers including Porfirio Diaz, Victoriano Huerta, Venustiano Carranza, and Alvaro Obregón. The revolution quieted down around 1920 and Villa retreated in semi-retirement to his ranch, but his old enemies still feared him too much and he was assassinated in 1923. More »

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Frida Kahlo
Guillermo Kahlo/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was a Mexican artist whose memorable paintings earned her world-wide fame. During her life, she was well known as the wife of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, but now, decades later, it's safe to say her work is better known than his in many areas of the world. She was not greatly prolific — a childhood accident caused her pain her whole life — and produced fewer than 150 complete works. Many of her best works are self-portraits that reflect her pain from the accident and her troublesome marriage to Rivera. She liked to incorporate the vivid colors and interesting imagery of traditional Mexican culture. More »